|Me w/ Pat Bassett at Oakridge|
On Plasticity as an Emancipatory Metaphor
Many people have a tree growing in their heads but the brain itself is much more a grass than a tree.
-G. Deleuze & F. Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 15
In Catherine Malabou’s What Should We Do With Our Brain?, she explores the implications of a neuroplastic model for the brain, but she approaches her topic from a more literary-philosophical point of view, which makes her keenly aware of the ideological assumptions that accompany one's word choices, metaphors, and modes of articulation, even in the realm of the sciences. She writes, “Any vision of the brain is necessarily political. It is not the identity of cerebral organization and socioeconomic organization that poses a problem, but rather the unconsciousness of this identity” (52). In other words, any metaphor or mode of verbal representation we employ to make sense of what we mean by “brain” reflects certain assumptions and biases of how we think politics, power, and the social. As stated in the previous post, our models and metaphors reveal our assumptions, values, and desired outcomes as a society, a culture, or a given group of people. (I think of how functionalism for instance as an approach to philosophy of mind came hand-in-hand with our increased fascination with computing as a model for intelligence and problem-solving.) Malabou mentions one common vision for the brain which likens it to a rigid command center, “which gives rise to so many unsettling metaphors in the register of command and government: a controller that sends orders down from on high, a central telephone exchange, a computer…” (4-5). Of course, she discusses this in order to explore a newer, alternative model for brain-functioning, namely one that relies on the metaphorical notion of plasticity, which describes something as both receiving and giving form (commands), thereby having the ability to constantly connect, modify, repair, and re-map.
The receiving and giving of form is what distinguishes plasticity from flexibility. Malabou explains it further stating, “The word plasticity thus unfolds its meaning between sculptural molding and deflagration, which is to say explosion. From this perspective, to talk about the plasticity of the brain means to see in it as not only the creator and receiver of form but also an agency of disobedience to every constituted form, a refusal to submit to a model” (6). “Neuroplasticity” as Google defines it is “...the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment.” In other words, new research about the plasticity of the brain shows that the brain is less of a rigid command center and more of an ever-changing neuronal network whose form adapts, molds, and adjusts in response to the environmental exposures and encounters during its history and development as an organ. Our brain and its neuronal functionings also help shape the workings of the brain as well as its environment both in and outside the biological system of the body, meaning “…neuronal functioning and social functioning interdetermine each other and mutually give each other form, to the point where it is no longer possible to distinguish them” (9). We have not realized the entire reach of this useful concept, says Malabou, for neuronal plasticity entails freedom from unilateral demands for compliance. It's a give-and-take model and this means “...it is not just a matter of uncovering, in the name of brain plasticity, a certain freedom of the brain but rather… to free this freedom, to disengage it from a certain number of ideological presuppositions that implicitly governs the entire neuroscientific field and, by mirror effect, the entire field of politics” (11). Plasticity helps us envision how relationships could function in a more egalitarian, horizontal manner and therefore shifts our mindset in terms of how we cultivate partnerships for change.
|IMAGE CREDIT: Esther Beaton/Australian Geographic|
-When I suddenly decided to “gamify” my class last year (in the middle of the semester), it demanded a lot of adjustment out of my students, so it was important to be transparent, communicative, and open to student feedback and intervention. I constantly asked them for ideas and suggestions for improvement, and we molded to each other in the process of our shared exchange while embarking on this new experience together.
-Recently, the leadership at my school has done a great job embracing plasticity over flexibility as we continue to challenge each other to embrace certain changes to serve our students even better: (1) Today, we’re hosting an “unconference” on campus where teachers freely lead and facilitate sessions that they deem most necessary and relevant for our needs as a school in relation to professional development. Usually the agenda for PD comes from the top-down. (2) Additionally, this semester we are launching several teacher-led (as opposed to department or divisional heads) research & design teams to discuss changes needed to meet our long range vision and goals as a school.
It’s great to see the aparallel evolution of certain campus silos such that they are working together in a way where collaboration takes the place of compliance. Jacques Ranciere put it nicely when he said, “He who bends others best is he who bends best himself” (85). My challenge to myself is to replace the demand for flexibility with the model of plasticity both as a teacher and as a collaborative colleague. Otherwise, relationships become a struggle for power, which reminds me of something else Pat Bassett said the other day: “Education is relational, not transactional.”
|"Dendrites" - http://www.nica-institute.com/dendrites/|
Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. Print.